In July of 2014, I sat in the audience on the last day of the InfoAg Conference in St Louis. It was my first major farm conference trip outside of somewhat local events that had been put on near my home in the Carolinas. Frankly, my mind was blown with this experience. I had taken in more new information in a three-day period than I had in the previous five years combined. By attending that conference, I was afforded the opportunity to hear some of the smartest minds in agriculture speak on and demonstrate how precision farming was going to change the industry as we knew it. And then I had a realization...it would be another year from this moment until I was able to connect and learn from the industry’s best again at InfoAg 2015. That’s when I knew I had to create AgFuse.
Agriculture is a very unique industry for a number of reasons, but one of the more unique paradigms of ag is that it is an industry built upon the generous sharing of information among its participants. Most neighboring businesses who are in the same industry view each other as competitors. Farmers view neighboring businesses as neighbors. And generally, there is a spirit of cooperation and helpfulness from neighbor to neighbor. The other part of this paradigm is that farmers are becoming increasingly geographically isolated. Thus, networking and information sharing is becoming more and more limited to things like conferences and, now, digital tools like AgFuse and other social media platforms.
The history of farmer networking in the United States dates back to at least 1819, when an agriculture publication titled “The American Farmer” asked farmers to begin sharing their experiences and achievements through local clubs and networks. In 1914, the Smith Lever Act formalized this idea by creating the land grant university extension system that we currently enjoy today. Keep in mind that at that time, over 50% of the US lived in rural areas and over 30% were directly involved in agriculture. Today, less than 2% of Americans are involved in farming occupations. The proverbial rural coffee shops, which have always been hubs for local growers to network, are becoming a much lonelier place with each passing year. The irony is that with less people involved in agriculture, there has been an increasing reliance on information and technology in production.
So, in a nutshell, that was the birth of the idea for AgFuse. The realization that there was going to be an acceleration of information and technology utilization in the agriculture industry combined with less opportunities for in-person networking was the spark that got us here today. AgFuse is called the social network for professionals in agriculture, but I kind of prefer the term information network. We have come a long way from that day in St Louis in 2014 and we still have a long way to go. Our mission is extremely ambitious, but is one that--when the statistics I mentioned above are considered--is frankly very important. The goal is simple: to become the centralized information hub and network for professionals in agriculture.
Where are we now?
AgFuse currently has over 3,300 members and is growing steadily. As we grow our network, two things happen: the diversity of our membership base increases and the quality of interaction within the network increases. To understand the significance of this, let me describe to you our current product.
Our current product is what many people would call a social media “platform.” A new user goes online, joins AgFuse, sets up their profile and can begin to enjoy the benefits of interacting with our community. Think of the AgFuse product’s basic functionality as a cross between LinkedIn and Twitter. You have the ability to build your network while also perusing your newsfeed. The newsfeed will show you posts and articles from other users in your network plus users who have the same interests as you. We like to say that AgFuse is localized and specialized, meaning we suggest network connections to you based on your location AND your agricultural interests. This means that the information you’ll find on your newsfeed will always be relevant to you. You’ll be able to interact with neighbors to see what they think are the best soybean varieties for your county and you’ll also be able to read national marketing experts’ views on how Chinese tariffs will affect those same soybeans. We have users from over 64 countries and we have special interest groups ranging from crops like corn all the way down to topics like hydroponics. There is something for every ag professional on AgFuse!
Ag companies and organizations are creating “groups” to serve as their digital storefront on AgFuse. These group pages allow organizations to network and interact with current and potential customers. For example, there’s a local irrigation company in my area that used AgFuse to remind its customers about pre-season irrigation maintenance by posting a checklist document to their company’s group page.
With all of the concerns over data and privacy, now is a probably a good time to mention that our user’s have complete control over the privacy levels of their profiles and user experience on AgFuse. And, we won’t be selling your data to any third parties.
We started with the basic social networking functionality of AgFuse but realized that, to achieve our ultimate goal of becoming the centralized information hub for professionals in ag, we needed more features. So, we created a feature that we call AgFuse Publishing. This feature allows any user to write long-form articles that can be hosted and shared not only across the AgFuse platform but also across all other social media platforms. The articles show up in users' newsfeeds if they follow the author and also are ranked based on popularity and keywords. We’ve seen organizations post articles on all kinds of topics, which helps them gain followers and interact with their target audience. Other individuals are using AgFuse Publishing to build their audience on AgFuse and beyond. These power users are leveraging the platform to grow their influence in their area of expertise.
We then decided that, with our mission in mind, we needed to enhance searchability on our site. This upgrade may not sound all that exciting, but--to us at AgFuse--it was a major piece of the puzzle that needed to be optimized. If we are going to be the centralized hub for information in ag, our reference game needs to be strong and users need a way to find information quickly and relevantly. Through our search-filtering capabilities and popularity algorithms, when you search something like “Corn Fungicides,” you will find the best information or articles on that subject quickly and easily. Later this year, you’ll be able to bookmark the best of what you find on AgFuse so that quick and easy reference abilities will extend beyond search.
Later this month, we’ll release other great features like commodity quotes and weather forecasts for your area. In the future, we’ll also have the capacity to add classified ads, job postings, personalized event calendars and local marketing bids. We have even been approached with the idea of using AgFuse to help local grower’s communicate with each other about where they have planted certain crops that are at risk to new herbicide technologies. Again, we are going to be your centralized, one-stop shop for agricultural information.
And, there is much more coming down the pipeline. There’s a new feature that we are aiming to release later in 2018 that is going to be the game-changer for AgFuse. I don’t want to say much more about it, but let’s just say I’m confident that--after the feature is introduced--if you need to know something in farming, you will come to AgFuse for the answer.
There are already many information services and websites out there for specific niches within agriculture. However, AgFuse is centralizing this information and is adding the power of a network. We already have some of the smartest people in agriculture on AgFuse and, as the network continues to grow, the value to our users will also grow exponentially.
We have come a long way from the original iteration of AgFuse that was sparked that day in St Louis in 2014. But some things haven’t changed. I built this for myself. Not me as the owner of AgFuse but rather me as the owner of Pat and Blake Rogers Farms, a 2,500-acre cotton and peanut farm in rural South Carolina. As a farmer, I saw a need for a better way to network and share information in the agricultural industry. As my vision for AgFuse evolves, the mission is still the same. I want us to provide a product that is indispensable to the agricultural professional. The most powerful tool today does not reside under your equipment shed but rather in your pocket. (I guess this is a good time to mention that we have apps for both iOS and Droid phones and tablets). I hope that, as AgFuse grows and evolves, it will help farmers produce more. I hope that AgFuse helps agricultural organizations get their message out to their target audience. And, I hope that AgFuse helps facilitate the continued growth and advancement of the industry as a whole.
I’ve been encouraged by others to share the story of AgFuse. They say people want to know how we started, who I am and where we’re going. I’ve been told that others want to know if there’s a face behind AgFuse or if it’s a venture-funded, large startup. I’m still not sure how that question matters, but the answer is nope...it’s just myself and my merry band of (awesome) freelancers. In reality, I really prefer to be low-key and stay in the background. I’d like my product to do the talking and promote itself. So, having to put myself out there to promote AgFuse has been exhausting and is the only part of AgFuse’s startup journey that I can say I really haven’t enjoyed. So, please excuse me while I move back out of the picture. But, if nothing else, I hope this gives you an idea on the background of AgFuse and our mission going forward.
For this dirt farmer with no tech background, building a social network for ag professionals from the ground up has been about as easy as you’d think. In a weird way, it’s actually a lot like farming. It’s been a grind and, while the end result of this is still unknown, it’s been a fun and rewarding experience. Plant a seed and watch it grow, right? There have been countless frustrations and almost daily roadblocks but four years later, I’m heading back out to St Louis again for this year’s InfoAg to learn and network the old-fashioned way. Only this time, I’m armed with a new digital tool at my disposal, one that will help build my network and expand my takeaways from this year’s conference and beyond.